Two Books: Plants, Drinks, Drinking Culture and Society

First I want to warn you that this “review” or rather introduction of these two fantastic books is longer than an average review, but if you are interested in the fascinating world of drinks and drinking culture, I believe this article is just for you. Either of these books are brand new, Rough Spirits & High Society was published in 2017 and The Drunken Botanist already in 2013, but it was reprinted in 2017. Both are still available. Rough Spirits & High Society is British, written by Ruth Ball and The Drunken Botanist is by American writer Amy Stewart.

Both books are very beautiful. If you see them in a bookstore shelf, your eyes probably catch them and you want to have a closer look. Rough Spirits & High Society is extremely generously illustrated with fantastic pictures. I have to say that I bought the book just because of the illustration. It’s stunning. The Drunken Botanist is totally different. It is not colourful, but relies on different shades of greens in its coloration. The layout is quite simple and distinct with simple drawings of the plants. But the language is even more colourful. It made me smile, sometimes even laugh. I knew that I cannot write a short review, that it will be a longer, article style thing. Two different reviews would have been one solution, but I couldn’t get rid of the idea that I want to publish the stories of these two books in one, long story.

1. Rough Spirits

Rough Spirits & High Society – a book for an aesthete

Rough Spirits & High Society. The Culture of Drink is a beautiful book. It is a beautiful object. It’s a book that you can just browse and study the pictures that are spread on the pages. Most of those pictures are from the archives of the British Library that is also the publisher. It’s a book about interaction between the drinking culture and the society. The six chapters are called: ‘Inn Communication’, ‘Tavern Society’, ‘The Alehouse of the People’, ‘Caffeinated Trading’, ‘Gin Lane to Gin Palace’ and ‘Tea and Suffrage’. The titles are giving pretty good idea what the book is all about.

The first chapter starts all the way from the Canterbury Tales. Before too long the inns were not just simple lodging and drinking places, but they became also legitimate trading places. But consumption of alcohol was still present as always.

Part of the motivation for the transfer of trade from the marketplace to the inn came from the fact that, traditionally, when larger bargains had been struck in the marketplace they would be sealed with a drink. The drink was best taken where the other patrons of the inn could act as witnesses to the deal, harking back to the earlier days of the mead pledge. The drinking and trading culture of the inn was born long before the temperance movement could appear and start once more to make drinking incompatible with respectability. (pp. 28–29)

The author continues that by the sixteenth century most market towns had several inns. The inns started specializing in different trades, too. There were inns from cheese and hops inns to cloth and leather inns. And the wealthiest ones were dealing with luxury good. The county inns that were located in the regional capitals were on the top of the inn hierarchy. They were concentrating on different kind of activities, hosting entertainments and hiring out rooms for functions that demanded catering on a large scale. Sometimes several inns in the town were working together. The county inns were also the administrative and political centres in the area. And what can be seen most important, they had a significant part in the development of the postal service, the innkeepers becoming the first royal postmasters. The first chapter is in fact concentrating this part of the history of the inns in most in-depth. Finally the trains were replacing the mail coaches and distributing the mail was giving to offices that were kept under the complete central control of the Post Office, and traders began to professionalize themselves setting up corn exchanges and trading halls.

2. A midnight Modern Conversation
This image is included in the book. A drunken party with men smoking, sleeping and falling to the floor. Engraving after W. Hogarth. Credit: Wellcome CollectionCC BY

Taverns were – unlike inns – an urban thing. Inns and taverns were the only places to sell wine to be drunk on the premises. They offered also hot food, but drinking was the main thing. Wine was expensive, so taverns were more or less for rich guys. London was the home of the taverns. This chapter is a story about clubs like a lovely named Kit-Cat Club. The original meeting place of the club founded by a printer, Jacob Tonson, was the Cat and Fiddle Tavern.

Tonson wanted to bring his authors together with patrons who would fund the printing of their work, writes Ruth Ball. The wealthy patrons paid the food and wine. The patrons wished, as Ball writes, to cultivate architecture, music and most of all, literature. They saw that royal patronage was neglecting these, particularly literature, as the new royal family was speaking English only as a second language. But besides art, the other thing that was in common for all the patrons, was politics. Young writers were thus producing regular political pamphlets in support of the Whig Party. Robert Walpole became a member of the Kit-Cat Club by 1703. The club’s significance was huge. “The Kit-Cats even ruled the country as regents for the short period between the death of Anne and the arrival of George I from Hanover.” So, they had much more power in politics than in the arts.

The Tories had their club, too, The Brothers Club, that met in the Thatched House Tavern.

By the mid-eighteenth century a new term had started to emerge, covering both taverns and alehouses. That was public house. The price of wine had started to fall, so it was not just a drink of wealthy anymore. At the same time the quality of beer had improved, so now it was a choice also for some people who wouldn’t have touched it just fifty years earlier.

3. Beer Street
Beer Street by William Hogarth is included in the book (although from other source). Credit: Wellcome CollectionCC BY

The alehouses had been for poorer members of society. In the Middle Ages ale drinking was a very communal thing; if someone had extra ale to sale, they informed about it. The church had also a very friendly relationship with drinking at that time. Ale was also provided to workers free with food. So there was no need to buy it somewhere.

The introducing of hops in beer making made it possible to store it for longer. That was an essential thing for permanent alehouses. The alehouses had also other functions than just offering something to drink. By the early seventeenth century some landlords were providing more formal economic service (than just selling beer on credit when needed) by acting as pawnbrokers and so on. They were also providing cheap sustenance and lodging for travellers who had not enough money for more expensive inns. Some of the alehouses had also an important role as a house of call, sort of labour exchange, where employers could find skilled workers when needed, journeymen.

The journeymen formed their own craft clubs and each local club would use a particular alehouse as a home base that was also its house of call. The landlord of the alehouse became involved as for example he was often given a portion of the responsibility concerning the funds of the club. Also the trade unions found their first home in alehouses.

Later the alehouse keepers started losing their independence and the brewers started to step in. The Beerhouse Act of 1830 brought an end to these kind of alehouses, as the new act allowed beer to be sold without a license.

The fourth chapter moves from alcohol to coffee. The first coffee house (or coffee shed) according to the book in the whole of Europe was set up in London around mid of the 17th century. Coffee houses became a place of debate with a male company. They became trade-specific news centres and places for stock trading. Finally, in the 1760s the stockbrokers had to leave coffee houses. This led to building the Stock Exchange.

One financial industry that was born in a coffee house is a household name: Lloyd’s. Edward Lloyd opened his coffee House in 1687 in Tower Street, but moved later to Lombard Street. The current Lloyd’s building is very close the original site of the coffee house where it was born.

4. The Gin Shop Displayed
A picture from the book. Three women in a gin shop divert the landlady’s attention while a match boy steals her money. Mezzotint, c. 1765. Credit: Wellcome CollectionCC BY

The chapter five is about my favourite thing, gin. When the spirits emerged, they represented a big leap in the level of intoxication, writes Ruth Ball. “To get very drunk on beer requires time and commitment, but with spirits it is more challenging to stop before reaching that point than it is to have too much.”

Specialist houses for selling these strong drinks (taverns and alehouses could not sell spirits) had begun to develop by the seventeenth century and by the mid-seventeenth centry they were called brandy shops, if they were of the better, dram shops if they were of cheaper sort. I like their early name though: strong water houses.

The quality of the England produced spirit was not good at all, it was “bad” as the author writes and continues that the only way to make them palatable was to flavour them strongly. Flavours like aniseed and peppermint were used, but a “perfect storm of circumstances eventually came together in the early eighteenth century, which brought one particular flavour to popularity – and then through popularity into infamy. That flavour was juniper…”. She continues that England would eventually be consuming ten litres of gin for every man, woman and child every year.

The man behind this new drink was the new king, William of Orange (who took to the throne in 1689). He dropped the tax on native spirits to nearly nothing to appease the grain-glutted landowners as well as drinkers who couldn’t afford anymore buying brandy because of its increasing price. He also deregulated the production and sale of spirits. When the Dutch technique of making geneva and English base spirit met, the result was gin. And it was cheap. The consequences were not good at all, and before too long anti-gin movement was formed.

There was one thing that separated the dram shops from other drinking places: women were allowed to come in. The bad reputation it had gained was stuck. As Ruth Ball writes, gin had to wait for the cocktail age to finally achieve respectability.

Besides those dram shops there would also be other places for women. Those were tea shops, the first acceptable places for young women to go without a chaperone.

Tea became fashionable in England with Catherine of Braganza when she married Charles II in 1662. But tea was expensive, so tea smuggling was a big thing. Counterfeit tea was another thing. Because of the illegal businesses it was most commonly drunk at home. The popularity of tea was increasing and even though both sexes drank it, it was primarily associated with women. Women, who were drinking tea at home while men spent time in inns, taverns, alehouses and coffee houses. Women started getting tired with this all.

The Aerated Bread Company was the unexpected answer. The company opened its first tea rooms in 1864. The tea rooms were now places for women to meet and talk and exchange ideas. These groups began to form into suffrage societies and further into larger national organizations. The tea rooms were also places where the direct action acts were planned, and not only planned… There were also tea rooms owned by women and those owners were not just sympathetic to the suffrage movement, they were part of it.

5. Book, gin and tea

Rough Spirits & High Society is very quickly read popular history type overview written for large audience. I feel that it has succeeded quite well. At least I enjoyed it a lot. When I picked the last copy from the bookstore shelf and took it to the cashier, I somehow could read on his face that I had picked something that he might have recommended anyway.

Ruth Ball: Rough Spirits & High Society. The culture of drink. British Library, 2017. ISBN: 978-0-7123-5215-4. (176 pages)


6. Drunken Botanist

The Drunken Botanist – a book for a DIY person

The subtitle of Amy Stewart’s book, The Drunken Botanist, tells what the book is all about; The plants that create the world’s great drinks. The book introduces the plants in alphabetical order using their common names, and thus it can be used as a reference book.

Yes, this is a book about plants… and drinks. Drinks are made of plants. In the beginning of the book Stewart tells about a visit to a liquor store: “Suddenly we weren’t in a liquor store anymore. We were in a fantastical greenhouse, the world’s most exotic botanical garden, …”

Around the world, it seems, there is not a tree or shrub or delicate wildflower that has not been harvested, brewed, and bottled. Every advance in botanical exploration or horticultural science brought with it a corresponding uptick in the quality of our spirituous liquors. Drunken botanists? Given the role they play in creating the world’s great drinks, it’s wonder there are any sober botanists at all. (p. xii)

There are 160 plants introduced in the book, some familiar and some not so familiar. The great thing is that the book is not concentrating on European and American drinks and drinking culture, but like the plants, also the stories of the drinks as well as myths and events, cover the whole globe. Some of the plants are poisonous or illegal &c, so it’s not a good thing to try to make your own drinks using all the plants that you find in the book. Because, as the reader notices, all this drinking business is also very much of molecular biology.

But among those 160 plants I couldn’t find the one I really was looking for: nettle. Why I was searching just for this plant? Well, as the book is about drinks, well, more or less alcoholic drinks, the nettle beer made by my late mother is the only drink that I managed to drink too much. It happened when I was at age of 18 at my summer job at a local museum. I had bread and nettle beer as my lunch. After the lunch break I was feeling a bit strange and I had no idea what was wrong with me. I just had to sit down on the window sill as I was feeling a bit wobbly. Well, my innocent nettle beer had fermented a bit too much.

The book is divided in three parts starting from fermentation and distillation. And as the plants are introduced in alphabetical order, the first one is agave (and the last one is wheat). The first drink that is introduced is pulque with a little bit of history and how it’s made from the very beginning, from extracting the sap from the plant, fermenting it and… then it’s ready to drink.

When reading the book you are given quite a lot of information about natural history, and history in general, a bit of biochemistry, drinking cultures and so on. And recipes. Everything in one nice packet. You will learn about the work of bacteria called Zymomonas mobilis that live on the agave and help in the fermentation process. Besides working there, these bacteria are used to make biofuels, too. Mezcal is the right way to spell the name, and the author reminds the reader that mezcal should not be confused with mescaline, a totally other thing. Those of you who have read the books by Carlos Castaneda, definitely knows the difference!

Okay, so that’s how the plants and drinks are introduced, you have a plant and you have drinks made of the plant. There are tables or lists and throughout the book you find recipes and even advice how to grow your own plants.

After agave we move to apples and lean some fascinating stuff about its DNA. And when you talk about apple, you think about cider. Right? I might not be the best person to write about a book about alcoholic drinks as I really don’t consume alcohol. I still regret a bit turning down a chance to taste cider when visiting certain Mr. Bulmer (yes, he belongs to the cider family although he never was in the cider business himself) in Hereford. Hopefully I had a good explanation… However, nowadays I have something else from that area, apple based gin.

Barley and beer and whisky (or whiskey… “how to drive a cocktail writer mad”, at least I learned finally that both spelling is correct), corn and bourbon… Corn was called maize by Columbus, I read. Now I understand: in Finnish language (my mother language) corn is “maissi”. I learned why oak barrel is good for alcohol and what happens to used bourbon barrels. Rice and sake… Rye and George Washington… Yes, I refer here to the founder of the States and the country’s first president and not a drink with funny name. George Washington happened to be also a very early distiller of rye whiskey. In the book there is another presidential story; about Richard Nixon and a sorghum based drink mao-tai and how he almost burned down the White House, well, only the table cloth caught fire, but still…. (If you want to know more, you can read more here.) Talking about the founders of the United States, it was not Benjamin Franklin who invented spruce beer. He had just copied recipes from a cookbook by Hannah Glasse for his own use. I just mention this in the case you have heard something else…

Sugarcane brought rum and slavery, and you will also learn what’s the connection between rum and gunpowder, but you might know that already. It’s all about the alcohol content in the liquid. Rum has had a strong tie with British navy. But in 1970 the British navy discontinued the daily tots:

Sailors protested, wearing black armbands and appealing to Prince Philip, a retired navy man himself, to “save our tot”. But it was no use. Eliminating the rations saved money and helped make sure that the sailors steering the submarines were at least as sober as civilians driving cars. (p. 104)

The first part of the book ends with introducing a selection of not so ordinary plants used in making drinks starting with the banana and ending with the tamarind. And no, elephants are not getting drunk by eating fermented marula fruits. First, they are eating only ripe fruits and on the other hand: in order to get drunk, an elephant should eat about 1400 rotten marula fruits! So, my next question is if the seventies film Animals Are Beautiful People was telling lies, as it was showing drunken animals, including elephants, after they had eaten fermented marula fruits… Whatever, the film was funny! (If you are not familiar with it, check the drunken animals part here.) The drunken lorikeets seem to be one of the only true accounts of wildlife being intoxicated by wild liquor, writes Stewart. Those Australian parrots get drunk by eating fermented eucalyptus nectar. The nectar is their normal food source. When the parrots are in bad condition they are vulnerable and thus bird rescue organizations take in drunken birds and help them sober up. Okay, but in Sweden there was a drunken moose. That is not mentioned in the book.

7. Juniper, Helsinki 2017
Juniper photographed in Helsinki, October 2017.

I’d better leave the drunken animals as all the contradictory information just confuses me.

The second part of the book is about herbs and spices, some of them having caused even atrocities like nutmeg. This section starts with allspice, also called as Jamaica pepper even though it’s not a pepper at all. In Finnish language it is called “maustepippuri”, spice pepper. So no wonder I learned very late in my life that it’s not a pepper.

Coca and Vin Mariani. Sarah Bernhardt declared that this wine “helped to give me that strength so necessary in the performance of the arduous duties which I have imposed upon myself.” For obvious reasons cocaine is not accepted in drinks anymore. Cocaine-free flavourin  is naturally used for example in Coca-Cola.

Grains of paradise and gorillas and juniper and gin. Gorillas know what’s good for them, people try to find out what’s good for them (for people, not for gorillas). People have tried hundreds of years to find a cure for this and that, for example boiling juniper berries in rainwater or wine to treat stomach pain. “That’s not gin, but anything that combines juniper and alcohol is a step in the right direction”, writes Stewart. Juniper has to be included in gin, and orris is found in nearly every gin and also in many other spirits. Orris is also a very common allergen. So gin is not for everyone.

The last plant before moving to flowers is wormwood. And of course the drink to go with wormwood is absinthe. I do also have experiences of wormwood, but not as an ingredient of absinthe. Already in the ancient, Egyptian medical text called Ebers Papyrus wormwood was recommended to kill roundworms. And that’s exactly my childhood experience with wormwood that my Mom bought in a drugstore and it was consumed added in coffee. I still remember how the wormwood coffee tastes.  

Then to flowers, trees, fruits, nuts and seeds. Chamomile is used for example in Hendrick’s Gin (as well as rose) and in some liqueurs and other alcoholic drinks. Hops made me thinking again my childhood as we had hops growing in the sunny spot behind our woodshed. Anyway, hops go together with beer and in the book you find an explanation why beer is sold in dark bottles. Maybe you knew that already. I hadn’t ever thought about that, as I am not a beer drinker. It’s not about disliking the taste, I am just not interested in it. But I could have been followed another path. Drinking alcohol was not a thing in my family; my Dad drank one bottle of beer after sauna. Once a week. And I still remember (back into my childhood again) that when he was opening the beer bottle, I was there with a coffee cup as I wanted some, too. And my Dad filled my cup – to halfway. I liked the taste (don’t ask what kind of beer it was, as I have no idea), but it didn’t make me a beer drinker.

The last paragraph of the quite a long hop story starts like this: “Brewers, for the most part, have little idea that hop farmers must endure scratchy vines, fight warehouse fires, and chase love-struck males out of their fields to get the crop to market.” If this sounds strange, it’s not. You will find all the answers in this book that uncovers all kind of “strange” things in the world of plants used in drinks.

8. Cinnamon photo

There is one tree that has had quite a big influence on certain drinking culture as well as on a battle against malaria. And that’s cinchona. And of course I am talking about quinine that is extracted from the bark of the cinchona tree. Its medical use led to the the birth of gin & tonic. (I will tell about this thing in my further articles, I believe.) As I mentioned above there is lots of history in the book. One sad story is connected with quinine. It’s about Bolivian Manuel Incra Mamani who was hired by Charles Ledger to collect seed for him. But unfortunately Mamani was arrested and put in a prison and beaten to death when the officials tried to find out to whom he had collected the seed found on him.

You will also learn what sugar maple had to do with replacing slave labour with child labour – if you exaggerate a bit. Ah, okay, I will tell: It was of course about sugar. Dr. Benjamin Rush, who was a friend of Thomas Jefferson, had advocated Jefferson for the use of maple sugar instead of cane sugar, which was dependent upon slave labour. Jefferson had slaves, too, but he saw some potential plus sides in using home-grown sugar maple, as he wrote to his friend, British diplomat Benjamin Vaughan that the harvesting of maple sugar required “no other labor than what the women and girls can bestow…” Not maple, but birch tapping is familiar to me from my childhood (again!). I remember my Dad trying it at home as we had birches growing in our land.

After trees it’s time to move to fruits. The centre piece is the citron. The plants in this genus produce all kind of citrus fruits that you find everywhere in your local food stores. For me the most interesting fact was that Florida is more into juice industry because of the state’s warmer nights, and California with its cooler nights produces more fresh fruits. In order to get the nice yellow colour fruits need cooler nights. Otherwise they stay green. Hope you understand the logic. This was not so nice fact: “[f]armers in the United States are also permitted to spray the fruit with a synthetic dye called Citrus Red No. 2.” The good thing (?) though is that it’s not permitted for fruit whose rinds will be used in food or drinks. So, the citrus will be dyed to look more attractive (than the same fruit being green) in the food store! The second part of the book is closed with nuts and seeds. But I will skip them now.

The third and last part of the book takes the reader into the garden. “A thousand cocktails can be mixed in a kitchen garden.” In this section there are tips for gardening herbs, flowers, trees, berries and vines as well as fruits and vegetables.

The book is really entertaining, funny and educational, full of fascinating stories.

Stewart closes her introduction to the book writing:

I want everyone who walks through a botanical garden or hikes a mountain ridge to see not just greenery but the very elixir of life – the aqua vitae – that the plant world has given us. I’ve always found horticulture to be an agreeably intoxicating subject; I hope you will, too. Cheers!

9. Juniper, June 2017
I took this photo at the Chelsea Physic Garden, where I also bought the book The Drunken Botanist.

A little bit more info can be found on the Drunken Botanist website.

Amy Stewart: The Drunken Botanist. The plants that create the world’s great drinks. London: Timber Press, 2013 (reprinted 2017). ISBN-13: 978-1-60469-476-5. (382 pages)

Text and illustrative images © Katriina Etholén, unless otherwise stated.

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